Brief History of the AHA

Seal of the AHA, which depicts the mythological story of Clio, Goddess of History, bestowing history upon Cupid, God of Love, for him to spread around the world.When the American Historical Association (AHA) was founded in 1884, history had only recently emerged as a distinct academic discipline. The first few professors in the field of history had only been appointed at major universities in the 1870s. Up to that point, wealthy men with the leisure time to pursue such endeavors did most of the writing of history and collection of historical manuscripts and archives.

Recognizing that a distinct field was emerging, a number of historians in the academy proposed an organization to establish high professional standards for historical training and research. In 1884, “professors, teachers, specialists, and others interested in the advancement of history in this country” were called to gather at the annual meeting of the American Social Science Association (ASSA) in Saratoga, New York. Despite the opposition of the ASSA’s president, John Eaton, the historians present voted to establish the American Historical Association as a separate organization. The central figure in this initiative was Herbert Baxter Adams, an associate professor in history at Johns Hopkins University, who became the first secretary of the AHA and remained so for the next sixteen years. Andrew Dickson White, a historian and president of Cornell University, was selected as the AHA’s first president.

In 1889, the association was incorporated in the District of Columbia by an act of Congress: “for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts and for kindred purposes in the interest of American history and of history in America.” The act provided that the association should have its offices in Washington, DC, and that it should make reports regarding historical matters to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who should then transmit to Congress such reports as he or she saw fit.

Executive officers of the American Historical Association photographed during their annual meeting on December 30, 1889 in Washington, D.C. Seated (L to R) are William Poole, Justin Winsor, Charles Kendall Adams (President), George Bancroft, John Jay, and Andrew Dickson White, Standing (L to R) are Herbert B. Adams and C. W. Bowen. This photo appeared in the February 1890 issue of the Magazine of American History. The Photographer was from M.B. Brady Studio.At the forefront of the Association’s activities was the support of new historical research. As part of its annual reports, the Association began publishing new historical research, typically papers presented at the annual meetings. In 1898 the Association began to subsidize the financially strapped journal the American Historical Review (AHR), which had been established by two AHA members. Although they initially thought to make it an independent publication, within three years the Review was being subsidized by the AHA. The Association assumed formal control of the AHR in 1915. The Association also supported bibliographic work with the occasional publication of Writings on American History and three editions of the Guide to Historical Literature.

In support of the raw materials of history, the Association has also been active in publishing documentary records and working with the government to insure the proper preservation of historical records. Due largely to the efforts of the AHA’s Committee on Governmental Historical Documentary Publications, the Committee on a National Archives Buildings, and particularly to J. Franklin Jameson, managing editor of the AHR during the early 1900s, the National Archives was established. This involvement in governmental support of history continues to the present day, when the Association remains involved in advisory boards for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation.

The teaching of history has been an AHA concern since its inception. At the K–12 level, the AHA took a leadership role in the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten (1893), which established the importance of history in the emerging secondary school curriculum. The Association followed this with further suggestions for revision and improvement from the Committee of Seven (1898), the Committee of the Social Studies (1916), the AHA Commission (1929–34), and the establishment in 1969 of AHA’s History Education Project, funded by the Office of Education.

The AHA has similarly been at the forefront of movements to develop high standards for graduate history education. In a report by the Committee on the Planning of Research, chaired by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. (1932) a distinguished panel of historians pointed to important transformations taking place in the historiography of disciplines and recommended a major revisions to graduate training in history. Twenty years later, another AHA committee offered another bleak review of the training of professional historians, expressing particular concern about the time to degree and failure to keep up with the latest historiography. In 1974, the Association revised its Constitution to establish a Teaching Division, the only elected body in the profession specifically charged with developing teaching programs.

During its long history, the Association has not been immune to prevailing social forces. Women and minorities were officially accepted into the Association from the beginning, but enjoyed little or no representation at the Association’s meetings and in the governing structure. No African Americans were represented on the AHA governing Council until 1959, and it would be another 20 years before John Hope Franklin was elected president of the AHA. Similarly, only 15 women served on the AHA Council before 1971 (out of over 186 members), and in the Association’s first 100 years only one woman, Nellie Nielson, had been elected to the presidency. By 1973 an assistant executive secretary had been appointed for the specific purpose of dealing with such problems.

Like the rest of the world it studies, the historical profession changed over time. One way of tracking these changes is in the annual addresses of the presidents of the American Historical Association. These addresses, usually broad examinations of the state of the profession from the professional and personal perspective of the incumbent, have served to shape the work of historians even as they provide a snapshot of the particular thinking and concerns of historians at a specific moment in time.

Suggested Reading

James M. Banner, Jr., Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Thomas L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977).

John Higham, History: Professional Scholarship in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965).

Arthur S. Link, “The American Historical Association, 1884-1984: Retrospect and Prospect,” American Historical Review 90, no. 1 (February 1985): 1–17.

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Robert B. Townsend, History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880–1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).